Fighting Fire With Founders
Inc.|May - June 2021
Silicon Valley startups are taking aim at deadly wildfires. But saving lives will require cutting through red tape, fast.
By Kevin J. Ryan

Dave Winnacker stood on a hill in Northern California as flames devoured the houses below him. The Ala meda County Fire Department division chief had fought wildfires before, but the 2017 North Bay Fires felt different. A sense of helplessness overcame him as he watched them burn.

“I had engines assigned to them,” he says. “But you couldn’t stop it.”

A former Marine (and now a fire chief in the Bay Area’s Moraga-Orinda Fire District), Winnacker was one of more than 10,000 firefighters who battled the infernos, which raged for three weeks. The blaze tore through a quarter-million acres, killed 44 people, and destroyed over 6,000 homes. At times, it spread at a rate of one football field every three seconds. The damage totaled $13 billion, a new U.S. record that would fall the following year.

A few weeks later, Winnacker and his friend Robert Shear, a product manager who spent years developing internet-connected devices, were canoeing on the San Francisco Bay, talking about the disaster. Winnacker felt there had to be a better way to protect people from wildfires. Out on the water, he persuaded Shear to use his Silicon Valley experience to build a solution. What he envisioned felt inevitable. But it was an inevitability that hadn’t yet been invented: an “evacuation autopilot” that would use sensors to detect sudden temperature spikes and determine who should evacuate and when.

Shear reached out to Charlie Crocker, a former co-worker at the software firm Autodesk, and the two got to work developing the technology as a side project. The sensors they created functioned as planned but were expensive. Then, the 2018 Butte County Camp Fire killed 86 people, some of whom died after getting stuck in traffic jams and abandoning their vehicles.

At a demonstration of the sensor technology a few months later, a group of fire chiefs asked Crocker if he’d be interested in building something different: evacuation software. At the time, the process for ordering evacuations typically involved fire chiefs leaning on the hood of a car and using markers to draw circles on a map—a century-old approach to solving one of today’s most pressing problems. They would relay their recommendation to the police, who would call homes in the area or, if things became urgent, drive around delivering orders through bullhorns.

“It’s no surprise when these things don’t work out well,” says Winnacker. “It should be a surprise when they do.”

Crocker and Shear spoke with the fire chiefs about creating map zones to be used across agencies to ensure that roads wouldn’t get clogged during an evacuation.

“It was a very simple idea,” says Shear, “one where your jaw kind of drops. ‘You mean you’re not doing this already?’ ”

The pair took things a step further, envisioning software that would use algorithms to decide how zones should be evacuated by projecting where a fire would move. The software would identify intersections that were likely to become chokepoints and help fire chiefs make informed decisions about where to evacuate and when. Using topographical, wind, and recent rainfall data, it would model a blaze’s path one, three, and five hours in the future, helping agencies put certain zones on notice.

In early 2019, the two men worked with Jonathan Cox, deputy chief for the San Mateo Division of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (a.k.a. Cal Fire), and Matthew Samson, deputy chief for the South San Francisco Fire Department, to create a pitch for the San Mateo County board of supervisors highlighting the lifesaving potential of the idea. The board decided to give the two entrepreneurs $70,000 to build a platform, and the following month, in March 2019, Crocker and Shear founded Zonehaven. What had started as a side gig looked like it had the potential to become a sustainable company. Now all they needed were customers.

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